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Beyond the Secular: Narrativizing religious change in contemporary German novels

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BeSec (Beyond the Secular: Narrativizing religious change in contemporary German novels)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2018-02-28

The project “Beyond the Secular” studied changing assumptions about religion and secularity in present-day Germany. It analysed contemporary novels, poems, films and plays to show how such fictional representations build on public debates about, for instance, the role of religion in the public sphere, the integration of Muslim citizens, and the religious or secular identity of the German nation. While current public debates often posit an antagonism between faith and religion, on the one hand, and reason and modernity on the other, the fictional depictions studied in this project construct positions in between secular and religious world views, deliberately blurring the distinctions between such positions and emphasizing the continuity between secular and religious horizons.
The main goal of the project was to offer the first ever comprehensive study of religion in contemporary German literature, taking into account Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and non-faith based perspectives as well as alternative, fluid, and syncretistic religion. A second goal consisted in studying, from a comparative and interdisciplinary point of view, literary narrativizations of religion and the secular in dialogue with relevant social and cultural environments, and as catalysts of the on-going de-secularization of modernity. Finally, the project was designed to show, from the perspective of cultural and cognitive narratology, how contemporary fiction engages the minds of individual readers as well as the collective imaginary in the context of ongoing discussions about religion and secularity.
In order to fulfill these goals, the project consisted of the following three stages, corresponding to its objectives:

1. Through analyses of contemporary German-language novels, the project concluded that while postsecular texts often deliberately obscure the semantic border between the religious and the secular, the texts simultaneously place themselves in an explicitly religious tradition through the use of religiously charged topoi such as miracle, enchantment, conversion, or theodicy – topoi which have played an important role in the history of secularization, connecting texts and debates with older historical phases which also drew on these topoi, especially the period around 1800.
The first objective has been realized through the structure and outline of the Fellow's monograph, a detailed and comprehensive investigation of a broad range of literary texts from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist and agnostic authors, which constitutes the main output of the BeSec project. The monograph shows how this deliberate blurring and artful narrative negotiation fosters a reflective mode of reading, creating space for an empathic engagement with positions and world views that do not congrue with readers’ individual religious or secular identities. While political discussion about the role of religion in secular societies is often sectarian, postsecular literature and art may thus function as media of dialogue and understanding.

2. From a historical point of view, the Fellow's research into the recurrent use, but also the creative rewriting of these topoi draws on the German scholarship of conceptual history. Her results offer new, groundbreaking insights not only into the role of religion in present-day literature and art, but also into the history of secularization and into the scholarly methods that have emerged out of that history and that are now used to study it.
This methodology is comprehensively described in the first two chapters of the Fellow's book manuscript. It also constitutes the core argument of two scholarly articles.

3. In a systematic perspective, the BeSec project questioned the position and relevance of faith and spirituality in cultural analysis and in the humanities more generally. It concluded that the “postsecular” concept can serve as an heuristic not only for challenging humanities scholars to think beyond the religious-secular dichotomy and to recognize religion and secularity as overlapping dimensions of places, objects, rituals, discourses, and practices, but also for reflecting on how researchers’ attitudes and convictions have shaped the lenses of religion and secularity through which these places, objects, and discourses are viewed.
The third goal was realized through the international, interdisciplinary conference (Post)Secular: Imagining Faith in Contemporary Cultures, which Dr Horstkotte organized together with Dr James Hodkinson from the hosting institution, the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Warwick.
"Analysing a broad corpus of novels by German-language authors from diverse religious, secular, and ethnic backgrounds, the Fellow's monograph constitutes the first ever sustained study of new religious writing in contemporary Germany that has emerged out of the discussions about the relation between religion and secularity in the present. The project has been an extremely timely undertaking, not only because it coincided with a number of extremely lively, sometimes acrimonious, public debates about Germany's religious heritage and about the role of religion in an increasingly plural society, but also because the project was able to connect with several other research initiatives which have recently studied the role of religion in modernity. While exchange with these research groups provided the Fellow with valuable insights especially in the areas of religious sociology and politics, however, the leap from a general investigation of religion in modernity to a more specific study of the contemporary period in light of findings in cultural narratology had not been made before, and this constitutes an area of major progress beyond the state of the art which the project has achieved.
A main result of the BeSec project consists in showing how fiction addresses fundamental theological and anthropological questions about the origins, goals, and horizons of the human condition, and in supplying narratives and images to the collective imaginary that may contribute to solving ongoing social debates about the role of faith and religion in modernity. Although fiction's catalyzing function for the growth of secular options around 1800 is well known, little attention has so far been paid to the role of literary narratives in present-day de-secularization processes. The project fills this gap, supplementing and enriching sociological research in religious change by showing how aesthetic texts contribute to a discursive re-negotiation of religious and secular world-views. The coupling of ""modernity"" and ""disenchantment"", the project findings show, is itself a product of narrativization; this dangerously one-sided narrativization can be countered through fine-tuned analyses of individual literary narratives that present a more nuanced and more plural image of the many possible relations of religion and secularity, including many in-between positions. These findings, and their use in university seminars, in teacher training events, in public media discussions such as the BBC Radio 4 programme ""Beyond Belief"" in which the Fellow participated in May 2017, and in workshops for religious educators may therefore significantly impact public ideas about religion in contemporary society. Their dissemination through social media and public engagement events will directly and indirectly benefit political discussion and legislation."
Michael Takeo Magruder. New Jerusalem
Michael Takeo Magruder: New Jerusalem
Michael Takeo Magruder: New Jerusalem